Plasma Globe Reveals Your Next Clue

If you like solving puzzles out in the real world, you’ve probably been to an escape room before, or are at least familiar with its concept of getting (voluntarily) locked inside a place and searching for clues that will eventually lead to a key or door lock combination that gets you out again. And while there are plenty of analog options available to implement this, the chances are you will come across more and more electronics-infused puzzles nowadays, especially if it fits the escape room’s theme itself. [Alastair Aitchison] likes to create such puzzles and recently discovered how he can utilize a USB powered plasma globe as a momentary switch in one of his installations.

The concept is pretty straightforward, [Alastair] noticed the plasma globe will draw significantly more current when it’s being touched compared to its idle state, which he measures using an INA219 current shunt connected to an Arduino. As a demo setup in his video, he uses two globes that will trigger a linear actuator when touched at the same time, making it an ideal multiplayer installation. Whether the amount of fingers, their position on the globe, or movement make enough of a reliable difference in the current consumption to implement a more-dimensional switch is unfortunately not clear, but definitely something worth experimenting with.

In case you’re planning to build your own escape room and are going for the Mad Scientist Laboratory theme, you’ll obviously need at least one of those plasma globes sparking in a corner anyway, so this will definitely come in handy — maybe even accompanied by something slightly larger? And for all other themes, you can always resort to an RFID-based solution instead.

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Small Lightsail Will Propel Cubesat

If you read science fiction, you are probably familiar with the idea of a light or solar sail. A very large and lightweight sail catches solar “wind” that accelerates a payload connected to the sail. Some schemes replace the sun with a laser. Like most things, sails have pros and cons. They don’t require you to carry fuel, but they are also maddeningly slow to accelerate and require huge sails since there isn’t much pressure produced by a star at a distance. So far not many real spacecraft have used the technique, IKAROS was the first back in 2010. However, this month should see the launch of a crowdfunded cubesat that will use a solar sail to move to a higher orbit.

The 5 kg satellite built by Georgia Tech students is about the size of a loaf of bread. Once in orbit, it will deploy solar panels and a square solar sail nearly 20 feet long on each side. Despite the nearly 350 square feet of area, the sail is less than 5 microns thick. You can see more details about the mission in the video below.

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Dry Your Boots With The Internet Of Things

If you live somewhere cold, where the rain, snow and slush don’t abate for weeks at a time, you’ve probably dealt with wet boots. On top of the obvious discomfort, this can lead to problems with mold and cause blisters during extended wear. For this reason, boot dryers exist. [mark] had a MaxxDry model that had a timer, but it wasn’t quite working the way he desired. Naturally, it was begging to be hooked up to the Internet of Things.

The brains of the dryer is an ESP32, a solid choice for such a project. With WiFi on board, connecting the device to the internet is a snap. Relays are used to control the fan and heater inside the boot dryer, while MQTT helps make the device controllable remotely. It can be manually switched on and off, or controlled to always switch on at a certain time of the day.

It’s a simple project that shows how easily a device can be Internet controlled with modern hardware. For the price of a cheap devboard and a couple of relays, [mark] now has a more functional dryer, and toasty feet to boot.

We don’t see a lot of boot hacks here, but this magnet-equipped footwear is quite impressive.

Failed Scooter Proves The Worth Of Modular Design

Like many mechanically inclined parents, [Tony Goacher] prefers building over buying. So when his son wanted an electric scooter, his first stop wasn’t to the toy store, but to AliExpress for a 48V hub motor kit. Little did he know that the journey to getting that scooter road-ready would be a bit more involved than he originally bargained for.

She cannae take anymore, Captain

Of course, to build a motorized scooter you need a scooter to begin with. So in addition to the imported motor, [Tony] picked up a cheap kick scooter on eBay. Rather than worrying about the intricacies of cleanly integrating the two halves of the equation, he decided to build a stand-alone module that contained all of the electronics. To attach it to the scooter, he’d cut off the rear wheel and literally bolt his module to the deck.

[Tony] goes into considerable detail on how he designed and manufactured his power unit, from prototyping with laser cut MDF to the final assembly of the aluminum parts that he produced on a CNC of his own design. It’s really a fantastic look at how to go from idea to functional device, with all the highs and lows in between. When the first attempt at mounting the battery ended up cutting into the 8 Ah LiPo pack for example, and treated his son to a bit of a light show.

With all the bugs worked out and his son happily motoring around the neighborhood, [Tony] thought his job was done. Unfortunately, it was not to be. It turned out that his bolt-on power unit had so much kick that it sheared the front wheel right off. Realizing the little fellow didn’t have the fortitude for such electrified exploits, he went to a local shop and got a much better (and naturally much more expensive) donor for the project.

It’s here that his modular approach to the problem really paid off. Rather than having to redesign a whole new motor mount for the different scooter, he just lopped the back wheel off and bolted it on just as he did with the cheapo model. What could easily have been a ground-up redesign turned out to be a few minutes worth of work. Ultimately he did end up machining a new front axle for the scooter so he could fit a better wheel, but that’s another story.

Scooters would seem to be the unofficial vehicle of hackers, as we’ve seen a long line of hacked up two-wheeled rides over the years. From relatively low-key modifications of thrift store finds, to street-legal engineering marvels. We’ve even seen scooters fitted with trailers, so even the tiniest of proto-hackers can come along for the ride.

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A Better Motor For Chickenwalkers

The last decade or so has seen remarkable advances in motor technology for robotics and hobby applications. We’re no longer stuck with crappy brushed motors, and now we have fancy (and cheap!) stepper motors, brushless motors for drones, and servo motors. This has led to some incredible achievements; drones are only barely possible with brushed motors, and you can’t build a robot without encoders.

For his entry into the Hackaday Prize, [Gabrael Levine] is taking on one of the hardest robotics challenges around: the bipedal robot. It’s a chickenwalker, or an AT-ST; either way, you need a lot of power in a very small space, and that’s where the OpenTorque Actuator comes in. It’s a quasi-direct-drive motor that was originally pioneered by the MIT Biomimetics Lab.

The key feature of the OpenTorque Actuator is using a big brushless motor, a rotation encoder, and a small, 8:1 planetary gear set. This allows the motor to be backdrivable, capable of force-sensing and open-loop control, and because this actuator is 3D printed, it’s really cheap to produce.

But a motor without a chassis is nothing, and that’s where the Blackbird Bipedal Robot comes in. In keeping with best practices of robotic design, the kinematics are first being tested in simulation, with the mechanical build happening in parallel. That means there’s some great videos of this chickenwalker strutting around (available below), and so far, everything looks great. This bipedal robot can turn, walk, yaw, and work is continuing on the efforts to get this bird-legged bot to stand still.

Preserving Computer History Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday 26 June 2019 at noon Pacific for the Preserving Computer History Hack Chat with Dag Spicer!

In our age of instant access to the seeming total of human knowledge at the swipe of a finger, museums may seem a little anachronistic. But the information available at our fingertips is often only the tip of the iceberg, and institutions like the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California are dedicated to collecting and preserving the artifacts of the information age, capturing the intellectual capital that went into making them, and perhaps more importantly, providing context and making everything accessible.

The CHM is an incredible resource for anyone doing research involving the early days of computing. Dag Spicer is the Senior Curator at CHM, or “Chief Content Officer” as he likes to put it. Dag has been collecting, cataloging, and overseeing the largest collection of computer artifacts in the world for almost 25 years, and he has some stories to tell. He’ll stop by the Hack Chat this week to share them, and to answer your questions about the history of computers and how studying the past shapes the future of computing.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday June 26 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.


Ditch The Switch: A Soft Latching Circuit Roundup

For some of us, there are few sounds more satisfying than the deep resonant “thunk” of a high quality toggle switch slamming into position. There isn’t an overabundance of visceral experiences when working with electronics, so we like to savor them when we get the chance. But of course there’s no accounting for taste, and we suppose there are even situations where a heavy physical switch might not be the best solution. So what do you do?

Enter the latching power circuit, often referred to as a “soft” switch. [Chris Chimienti] has recently put together a fascinating video which walks the viewer through five different circuits which can be used to add one of these so-called soft power switches to your project. Each circuit is explained, diagramed, annotated, and eventually even demonstrated on a physical breadboard. The only thing you’ve got to do is pick which one you like the most.

There’s actually a number of very good reasons to abandon the classic toggle switch for one of these circuits. But the biggest one, somewhat counterintuitively, is cost. Even “cheap” toggle switches are likely to be one of the most expensive components in your bill of materials, especially at low volume. By comparison, the couple of transistors and a handful of passive components it will take to build out one of these latching circuits will only cost you a couple of cents.

Even if you aren’t in the market for a new way to turn off your projects, this roundup of circuits is a fantastic reminder of how powerful discrete components can be. In an age where most projects seem assembled from pre-fabbed modules, it’s occasionally refreshing to get back to basics.

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